Damian Lillard’s Portland return filled with love and appreciation: ‘I could feel it’


PORTLAND, Ore. — Sixty-three seconds.

That’s how long they cheered in Portland. How long they screamed. How long they yelled for Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard. The ovation during player introductions Wednesday would have been louder, but many were using two hands to record on their phones the first time Lillard played in Portland for a team other than the Trail Blazers. It was a moment nobody wanted to happen, but it was a moment that was too special, too memorable and too emotional to miss.

So for 63 seconds, a city and fanbase poured into Lillard and filled him with love.

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During his 11 seasons in Portland, Lillard would often talk about feeling the need to “pour into” those around him. He felt an obligation to mentor, uplift and inspire — be it Trail Blazers players, Portland employees, or students in the community. That obligation was at the core of why he tirelessly worked to perfect his game, and why he gave up so much of his personal time to visit local high schools, be an ambassador for Special Olympics, or give away shoes at a local park. His willingness to pour himself into others became such an obsession that those close to him worried his devotion would leave him dry.

So for 63 seconds, Lillard on Wednesday soaked in the applause, absorbed the shouts of love, and took in the signs of affection. He has long eschewed emotion and is uncomfortable with how to handle appreciation, so as the love rained down Lillard joined the applause before eventually raising his hands above his head while giving a double thumbs-up. As the roar crescendoed, he formed his hands into a heart.

“I just felt appreciated,” Lillard said. “I think that’s what it comes down to: you feel the appreciation and the love. I just kind of stood in it, like man, this is a big deal. Just to take that moment and to have everybody in the building show me that type of love … it’s an acknowledgment of a lot of things during my time here, so I appreciated it.”

Later, I asked him if the love the fans showed him validated all the effort he poured into the Trail Blazers organization and the Portland community, if it made it all worth it. He said it was already worth it, because he could always sense what he was doing was understood and appreciated.

Still, Lillard admitted that the repeated ovations — the opening 63 seconds, the 45 seconds after a video tribute following the first timeout, and the 20 second ovation after the video tribute in the second timeout — resonated on a different level than any other applause he had received during his career.

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On Wednesday, Damian Lillard played his first game as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks after 11 seasons in Portland. (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

These people had showered him with love before. In his second NBA season, this same building went bananas when he hit a 3-pointer off an inbounds pass with 0.9 seconds left to beat Houston in 2014 and secure the Blazers’ first playoff series victory in 14 seasons. As the crowd danced and hugged and reveled in delirium, Lillard accepted the microphone from P.A. announcer Mark Mason and from his gut roared “RIIIIIIIIP CITAAAAAAAAAY!

The shower of love was even longer, and more passionate five years later, when he bombed in a 37-footer at the buzzer to eliminate Oklahoma City in the first round. The shot put a bow on his 50-point performance, and his impromptu wave of bye-bye to the Thunder bench as teammates bull-rushed the court might as well serve as the mold to his statue that will one day be bolted onto the Moda Center grounds.

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And, of course, there was the 71-point game against Houston in 2023, his last season in Portland. That was a steady, two-hour session of growing appreciation. It was a performance so memorable because it was so palpable from the first quarter that something special was brewing.

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But all of those events — and all the 50- and 60-pieces, and clutch shots in between — came in reaction to what Lillard had just given them. The thrill of winning a playoff series. The joy of sending home Russell Westbrook and Paul George. The awe of witnessing a franchise scoring mark.

For Lillard, he said what happened here Wednesday went deeper. This was not a visceral reaction to a shot, or a performance. This was an appreciation of a body of work that extended beyond basketball.

“This was different … I could feel it,” Lillard told The Athletic. “I already knew how they felt, but I think this was an opportunity for them to show it in this type of environment. Like, to do something like that (63-second ovation), that’s something you choose to do … and there was no limit on it, they continued to show it. And I saw it before the game, social media, and around town. I felt it in a lot of ways.”

He said he wasn’t looking for closure on his 11-year tenure that ended because he asked to be traded in order to improve his chances to win a title. And he said he still hasn’t lost sight of his vision of someday ending his career wearing the Blazers pinwheel logo. Those are all things to dealing with the future, and right now he says his whole focus is on making the most of this championship window with the Bucks. 

It’s a window that becomes murkier with every game. The defense is in shambles — “Awful!” new coach Doc Rivers exclaimed — the execution is shoddy, and Lillard admitted he continues to wade through an adjustment period of playing with new teammates in a new system.

Meanwhile, players Portland acquired directly and indirectly from the trade of Lillard — Deandre Ayton (20 points, 11 rebounds), Toumani Camara (three drawn charges), Malcolm Brogdon (14 points, six assists) — were entertaining the best home crowd of the season. The place was popping, just like the old days, and by the time the game reached the fourth quarter, there was a discernible shift in motive from the stands.

Yes, their favorite son had returned. But as the score tightened, so had their allegiance to the Blazers. And Lillard now donned green. So, in the final seconds, when the Bucks designed an inbounds play for Lillard to win the game, they cheered when the Blazers defended it well and Brook Lopez missed from 3.

When the final buzzer sounded, and streamers fell celebrating the Blazers’ 119-116 upset, the cheers were louder than the 63 seconds during introductions. One player will forever hold a place in their heart.

But so too will the franchise.

(Top photo of Damian Lillard: Troy Wayrynen / USA Today) 





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